Astronomy has a rich history of study, and the study continues to evolve as technology becomes more advanced. Many people are drawn to astronomy because it helps answer some of life’s biggest questions, such as where did we come from, and what might our future hold? Pop culture has created a fantasy world in the stars for decades, so it’s not hard to see why kids can take up an interest in space.
If your child shows an interest in space, there are many rewarding ways to foster and grow this hobby. Not only is astronomy a great outlet for kids with inquisitive minds, but it can also lead to several practical science pathways, including mathematics, physics, and geology— just to name a few.
What Is Astronomy?
Astronomy is a natural science that studies celestial objects and phenomena. It pulls from several areas of STEM to explain the practical happenings in the universe around us. Astronomy also explores the theoretical, which can help us predict what our planet, stars, and even the whole galaxy may look like in years, or even centuries to come.
Astronomists are constantly discovering new phenomena, as the tools that they use become more sophisticated, and our understanding of space, on both a macro and micro level, improves.
When it comes to engaging young minds in astronomy, it’s important to understand the different types of astronomy to scale down this titan of a subject into a more digestible format for kids. As they get older, they’ll be able to advance into more interconnected studies.
Types of Astronomy
Astronomy, and the practice of studying space, can be broken down into two major types — observational and theoretical. While these types can be further compartmentalized depending on focus and study, these two basic types can be a great gateway for kids looking to get into the field.
Wikipedia defines observational astronomy as “a division of astronomy that is concerned with recording data about the observable universe.” This branch of astronomy is concerned with the more practical movements, patterns, and interactions of celestial bodies. Observational astronomy involves a lot of math and physics, as it’s concerned with distances and speeds.
Observational astronomy also encompasses more specific fields, such as:
- Radio astronomy: This is the use of radio waves to detect and amplify signals from space.
- Infrared astronomy: This is the use of infrared technology to study celestial bodies.
- Optical Astronomy: Also called visible-light astronomy, this is the use of telescopes and other tools to observe visible light emissions from space.
- Astrophotography: This is the use of cameras to take pictures of celestial bodies and events, both small and large scale.
Getting started in observational astronomy with your kids can be as easy as taking the time to observe celestial events, or even noting the seasonal movements of the constellations.
In contrast to observational astronomy, Wikipedia defines theoretical astronomy as “the use of analytical and computational models based on principles from physics and chemistry to describe and explain astronomical objects and astronomical phenomena.”
Theoretical astronomy allows scientists to model possibilities and potential futures based on the current positions, velocities, and other measurements taken from celestial bodies.
Despite working with contrasting concepts, observational and theoretical astronomy often intersect. Theoretical astronomy is incredibly science-heavy, as it uses chemistry and applied physics to create hypotheses.
Theoretical Astronomy also encompasses more specific fields, including:
- Astrophysics: This uses applied physics to study celestial phenomena.
- Astrometry: This is the measurement of the positions, movements, and magnitudes of stars.
- Astrogeology: This is the study of rocks and other naturally occurring materials from space.
- Astrochemistry: This is the study of the chemical substances occurring in space.
- Astrobiology: Formerly known as exobiology, this is the study of the evolution and future of life in the universe.
Although theoretical astronomy may sound advanced, it boils down to the scientific method, which can be taught as early as second grade. Theoretical astronomy builds upon all fields of astronomy.
Astronomy as a Gateway Subject to STEM
Connecting subjects like math and physics to something they already have a vested interest in, like space, can help students get past science or math anxiety. This not only can be a helpful avenue for teachers and tutors teaching these subjects, but it can also be a gateway to STEM extracurriculars.
For example, your child might be interested in joining something like an astronomy club, mathletes, or a similar activity where they can explore their interest in space through other avenues with their peers.
If your child has an active interest in astronomy, then it might be worthwhile to invest in math tutoring or physics tutoring. Tutoring isn’t just for kids who may struggle in certain subjects, it can also be a way for children to hone in on more advanced concepts, including calculus, applied physics, and advanced geometry, which are all incredibly important in the study of astronomy.
Stargazing and Observing the Night Sky
Depending on where you live, stargazing may be as easy as stepping out into your backyard. If you live in a city with significant light pollution that obstructs the stars, then you may need to plan a stargazing trip. Good spots for stargazing may include your nearest state park or the peak of a hiking trail — anything far away from population centers, preferably with a higher elevation, according to NASA. Before you head out on your stargazing adventure, here are some stargazing etiquette rules to follow to ensure everyone has a good experience:
- Get to your spot before dark: This is not only for safety reasons, but traveling around in the dark with a bright flashlight may disturb other stargazers.
- Limit the use of white light: The darker the area, the better view you, and other stargazers, will have. This includes limiting flashlights, lanterns, flash photography, and any other fluorescent lights.
- Use red and green astronomy lights sparingly: Red and green lights, as well as laser pointers, are often used to more clearly view celestial happenings while stargazing. Try to use these sparingly, to reduce disruptions to other gazers or local wildlife.
- Pack out everything you came in with: This is a general tip for going out into nature. Don’t leave behind any garbage, food, or equipment that could compromise the local wildlife or violate local ordinances.
- Try to limit excessive noise: For many, stargazing is a quiet, peaceful activity. For this reason, try to limit excessive noise. Things like shouting and loud music can also disrupt or disturb wildlife, which can be dangerous, depending on where you’re gazing.
- Don’t leave your group: This is especially important for stargazing with children. Wandering off in an unknown area at night can be incredibly dangerous, and lead to an increased risk of injury. Never leave your group without a buddy, or a means of quick, reliable communication.
It’s important to note that temperatures tend to drop significantly at night, regardless of the season, so always bring warming gear and accessories so you can stay out as long as you like.
Tips for Beginner Astronomers
You don’t need to immediately go out and purchase high-tech gear to start an astronomy hobby. As previously mentioned, you may even be able to start stargazing in your very own backyard, depending on the light pollution in your area. If the stars aren’t visible where you live, there are other ways you can start cultivating an astronomy hobby, including:
- Buy or borrow a basic telescope and binoculars;
- Join your local astronomy and stargazing group;
- Follow NASA on social media platforms;
- Listen to astronomy podcasts;
- Watch space documentaries;
- Read astronomy books.
Free resources, like your local library, can be a great place to kick off your new astronomy hobby, as they will have all kinds of books, movies, and may even have telescopes you can use.
Hands-on astronomy activities can help engage kids’ interest in space and astronomy in a practical way. It’s also a good way to start introducing basic astronomy concepts, such as the scientific method, the movement of the planets, and how light travels in an approachable, tactile way. The following organizations have curated lists of great DIY astronomy activities and games that range from no equipment to more complex:
If you’re interested in getting your children under five into the idea of space, then you may try space-themed sensory play. This will get them acquainted with the items typically associated with space, like stars, spaceships, planets, and so on.
Getting Involved in Citizen Science
Citizen science is another great, hands-on way to get your child involved in space. Citizen science is the collection of observational data by citizens for scientific organizations. NASA’s Citizen Science Mission Directorate has a directory of citizen science projects in various places, around various subjects for you and your family to choose from. These projects can range from reviewing animations to taking and submitting photos of your environment. There are great, scalable citizen science options for kids of all ages on the NASA Mission Directorate, that can not only help teach your kids about astronomy, but can help you learn new things too!
Career Paths for Kids Interested in Space and Astronomy
Some children may find their interest in astronomy goes beyond a hobby that could even potentially lead to a career in astronomy or related fields. There are several career fields related to astronomy that young adults may pursue as they reach college age. These include, but are not limited to:
- Planetarium Director;
- Aeronautical Engineer;
These are just some of the current career fields that your child could choose to pursue with a passion for astronomy. There may be even more career opportunities by the time they enter the workforce.
NASA Educational Resources for Parents and Educators
These resources are created and published by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) which is one of the biggest and most well-known space research and exploration organizations in the world:
- NASA Kids’ Club: This NASA kids’ club offers games and educational materials specifically aimed at younger children. This can be a great, kid-friendly site for students and kids to explore while learning more about space.
- NASA STEM Resources for Students 9-12:These resources can help teachers and parents plan activities and concepts that are developmentally appropriate for their kids to deepen their understanding of STEM. These resources can also be used independently by students interested in STEM and astronomy.
- NASA’s Eyes: NASA’s eyes is an interactive experience that kids, teachers, and parents can use to explore far-off parts of our solar system. Through computer recreation, kids can explore asteroid belts, planets, and other celestial bodies up close on their computer or tablet.
Other Educational Resources
The following resources are outside of NASA, but still provide valuable information for teachers and educators looking to enrich their children’s and students’ understanding of astronomy:
- Astronomy For Beginners: This site offers several tips, articles, and guides for beginning astronomers and astrophotographers. It is free to access, and can be a great at-home or classroom resource.
- 400 Years of the Telescope: This 2009 documentary, featuring Neil Degrasse Tyson, details the history of the telescope, and can be a great educational resource for teachers and parents looking to bring astronomy into their home or classroom.
- The International Dark-Sky Association: This association is committed to preserving sky visibility, by fighting against light pollution. This association can be a great avenue for kids and parents to get engaged in environmental advocacy, with a focus on astronomy.
Basic Glossary of Terms
Below, you’ll find some basic terms for beginner astronomers. These terms will help you better understand the most common terms used in astronomy. These terms are either to describe units of measurements, the things being measured, or specific astronomical events:
- Celestial body: This describes any singular object in space, including planets, stars, asteroids, and so on.
- Celestial event: This describes any movement or other active happenings concerning celestial bodies, including a meteor shower, eclipse, and so on.
- Terrestrial planet: This includes the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, or planets with solid surfaces.
- Giant planet: This includes the planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, or planets of a certain size and makeup.
- Asteroid: This is a small, rocky body orbiting the sun.
- Meteor: This is a body of matter from outer space that enters the earth’s atmosphere.
- Astronomical Unit (AU): This is a unit of measurement equal to 149.6 million kilometers, which is the average distance from the center of the earth to the center of the sun.
- Light Year: This is a unit of astronomical distance equivalent to the distance that light travels in one year, around 6 trillion miles. It is used to measure large distances in space.
Astronomy is an incredibly rich hobby for people of all ages. An astronomy hobby can range for a range of commitment levels. Whether you want a low commitment by researching low-cost books, documentaries, and other media, or a higher commitment by investing in technology, joining organizations, and even pursuing a career in the field — everything under the sun is available for your thirst for knowledge.
There’s always more to discover about the universe around us, so this can be a life-long hobby for both you and your children.